Growers from across Washington State gathered in North Bend on January 15, 2014 to learn from fellow farmers about various types of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations with a focus on successful practices and marketing techniques. The presenters’ and organizers’ goal for this one-day workshop was to assist growers currently offering a CSA option to their customer base, and how to maximize their CSA’s success. Workshop attendees have been running CSA programs for many years, with weekly box counts ranging from 30 to 450 or more. Some newer, small farmers from both rural and urban landscapes are managing shares for 20 to 80 members. All of them seek to hone their skills in order to succeed in the marketplace. Farmers took the opportunity to network, ask questions, and share techniques with others in the crowded room.
Presenter Claire Thomas from the Root Connection, a veteran of the CSA model, started her CSA 28 years ago in King County near the urban centers. Now feeding 450 members, Claire shared her story, spread sheets, techniques, and farm maps. She explained why tracking information is key, and revealed summary charts that showed how each of her farm crops’ net production and costs compare to one another. The Root Connection utilizes U-pick for members to harvest some crops out of the field, reducing labor costs, and providing member customers a sense of belonging to the farm. Claire’s leadership and wisdom were evident in her successes beyond the CSA: she established community ownership of farm land, protected farm land in her region, and collaborates with others to provide an ongoing source of fresh produce for people in need.
Zestful Gardens operates a 100 to 120 member CSA in the Puyallup valley. Co-owner Holly Foster has been farming for twelve years, testing and trying many situations. She presented lessons learned, proven efficiencies, and information about machinery. Little marketing effort has been needed for Zestful Gardens to reach and maintain their customer base, which fits their farm’s overall plans. This size works well for their efforts and expected return, sustaining her family and farm. Holly noted that you don’t want everyone: you want those customers that fit with your farm. Customers pack their own box in a designated “market booth” area set up by Holly, which allows her more time and ease to connect with customers while they do the labor of handling and packing. Holistic financial planning is integral to farm management and Holly revisits the plan regularly throughout the year and in-depth annually. Commitment to the plan and discipline in revisiting its goals is key to providing Zestful Gardens a stable base for financial returns.
The third presenter, Annie Salafsky of Helsing Junction Farm, was ill and could not attend. Workshop organizers instead convened a panel of experienced farmers from those in the room to answer audience questions. Each shared experiences on a range of topics including insurance policies, which they all have shopped around for after changes were imposed. A thoughtful discussion considered how to serve low income communities. Serving poses challenges, and many farmers find solutions in connecting with local food banks. For instance, Oxbow Farm coordinates with a food bank to have gleaners come to the fields. An alternate solution was shared by Growing Things Farm, which in addition to other efforts has filled bags with produce at a farmers market and discreetly passed them to those who appear to need. They all learned from each other.
Participants provided workshop evaluations and strong feedback. Attendees reported learning from both the details and overview data, and were inspired to continue their CSA work. The connection with other farmers was valuable, and many left the workshop feeling there was more to talk about. Participants are now communicating through emails as farmers aggregate their knowledge and products and learn from each other. For workshop organizers, it was an honor to be with so many dedicated farmers.
Annie Salafsky Interview
Tilth Producers spoke after the CSA Workshop with Annie Salafsky, co-owner of Helsing Junction Farm. As a scheduled presenter, Salafsky had been ill during the workshop and could not attend as a presenter. This interview was an opportunity to capture the perspective and experience from a farmer-owner who operates a 900-member CSA across Washington state and to answer some of the questions that were most frequently asked by those in attendance.
TP: What is your approach to member retention?
Annie: We use various marketing and outreach strategies, but in the end it’s truly word of mouth. Initially we lost name recognition by not being at the Olympia farmer’s market; but now it feels like that also works to our advantage as CSA members can’t compare what’s on the farmer’s market stall versus what’s in their box. We try to focus on growing the vegetables that people really want. Also making it as easy as possible for people to pick up, use and enjoy their CSA box. Filling in with the farm’s backstory is important; many people are members because they believe in what you do and they want to feel like they are a part of it. We try to include them in every way that we can.
TP: How do you value your shares?
Annie: Pricing is a real struggle to this day. It’s hard to get comparison pricing since we don’t go to markets. We pay attention to prices when we are out in town and try to price accordingly. For many years we gave way too much food. It cost us a lot of money and in the end though it probably did help retain some members, it frightened others away. We use Farmigo, which is cloud based data management designed specifically for CSAs. We use it to build a packing list for each delivery day. It saves prices and it automatically totals the box up for you and stores the info. You can then access it in English and Spanish as both a harvest list and a packing list for your CSA boxes. We find that carefully tracking what we put in the boxes is important in order to make sure that what we grow is distributed evenly to all CSA members.
TP: What is your labor situation?
Annie: We try to make sure we’re paying our managers a good wage and that all workers are making enough that they stay. If you pay too low then turnover is high. We brought in an efficiency expert to do an analysis, which was very helpful. Pairing down to only the CSA gave us a savings in labor since we could streamline the one operation: we could add CSA members and not add a lot of additional labor. Of all the issues facing small organic farms, labor wages is one of the biggest. Since we are forced to compete in a heavily subsidized marketplace, it feels like we are unable to charge what it truly costs to produce our product.
TP: What other efficiencies did you implement?
Annie: There was one particular “Aha!” moment that led to greater efficiency: we paid attention to the miles we were driving around the farm and realized they stacked up quickly and trash our farm trucks to boot. We plan to buy a new cooler for our barn, as the savings in labor, mileage, andgas will quickly amortize. We are trying to refocus on post harvest handling, as moving forward we are going to be selling ourselves as a nutrient rich product and less as a bulk product.
We always try to make sure the delivery truck leaves the farm full.
TP: How do you manage your orders?
Annie: Since we only do CSA, our reefer and dock are very streamlined. With Farmigo, we print labels that state the CSA member’s name, the size of their share, their drop site, the date and the contents of the box if other then their basic CSA share. So that we don’t have to read each label as we deliver, each drop off location label has a unique color. Because Farmigo is cloud based (not software) all data is current in real time and can be accessed through the computer and now a cell phone app! We started farming 23 years ago (pre cell phone), so it makes us really appreciate the fact that we can call in changes via phone and not by running or riding our bike out to the field, though it sure did hone the accuracy of our orders and/or harvest list!
TP: What is your approach to share packaging?
Annie: We found a supplier in Oregon for reusable CSA boxes that are used like a corrugated cardboard box and are lightweight. This will be our fourth or fifth season using them and they have held up really well. They are pretty expensive, about $8 – $10 a box (and you need 3 – 4 boxes per customer) but they seemed to have paid off. We started charging the CSA a box fee the year we bought them (which we still do) and that really helped defray the cost.
TP: How do you handle perishables?
Annie: Post harvest handling is very important. Starting early in the morning, cutting greens and the most perishable items first. Getting what you’ve harvested into boxes and into the shade quickly. Letting greens soak. Getting everything into the reefer quickly and giving it time to cool down before shipping it out. Make sure to give your CSA members instructions on how to rehydrate the vegetables if they are wilted. We harvest fresh for each day’s CSA delivery. We deliver three days a week.
TP: Do you offer optional items to members?
Annie: We do, and we manage add-on items pretty easily with the CSA cloudware, which makes it easy to track orders. It’s not high volume, but we do purchase significant stock from our suppliers and for many we are a big account. We’ve connected with other local farms and now offer some of their complementary products too, though we grow everything that goes into our vegetable CSA boxes.
TP: How does your CSA serve low income members?
Annie: We give away a certain number of shares each year through a food bank. Also, we donate shares through an organization that provides support to foster kids and their families. Our farm stand is a really good deal. We take WIC and food stamps. We work closely with the Thurston County Gleaners who come out every Thursday after we are done harvesting for the week and take away everything salvageable. They are amazing.
TP: What issues are important to you?
Annie: Nutrient density is the next ‘local’. We need to have our produce sampled so we have hard evidence proving that local produce is more nutritious for you. Soil fertility is key. Through our own research and in conjunction with the NRCS and have learned more about compaction, cover cropping, side dressing with amendments, soil testing, trace minerals and pH. Another important issue for us is that farm owners and workers be paid fair wages for their labor. My husband is a carpenter and the starting wage in his field is $15 – $17, something we can only dream of at this point in farming.
TP: How does the future look for you?
Annie: I feel more passionate and engaged than ever. Every year seems more interesting as I delve deeper in. Currently we’re focused on learning to care better for our soil. Farming is actually a form of mining and as stewards of some of the limited amount of arable land in our county, we feel responsible to not just sustain our fertility but to build upon it. What is farming, if not a symbiosis between people, plants, soil organisms, wildlife and all the other myriad factors that intertwine to feed us.